Blackfish City – Sam J. Miller

Blackfish CityAnd back to the Nebulas, so I can actually finish (and blog) before the winner is announced. This year, I definitely will! I’m reading the last one as we speak (ssh, yes I am a blogpost behind).

Aaaaand I was underwhelmed by this one too. I am officially declaring “meh” to be the theme of this year’s Nebula nominees, because it’s another one I’ve only given 3 stars to. And like, even though I didn’t like Witchmark, it wasn’t the invigorating levels of all-encompassing hatred some of last year’s bullshit got. I just… didn’t care. I was really hoping Blackfish City might buck the trend by being interesting (even if it was bad) but in the end… it wasn’t really? And once again, I just didn’t care. Not about the plot, not about the characters, not about any of it. And it’s not like this is a fundamental flaw of me, because I did just care very much indeed about The Priory of the Orange Tree, so I’m not somehow numbed against all joy. They’re just shite.

And it’s not even that I can say “oh well, maybe 2018 was a bum year”. Because it wasn’t. Where is The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle in all this, for instance? That was actually bloody good! And it did something new, interesting and worth paying attention to. And then there’s Revenant Gun, which at least did make it into the Hugo lineup. That whole series is phenomenal, but it’s not here. No idea what they’re playing at.

To come back to the book at hand, I’ll admit that some of my lack of interest may just be that I don’t seem to like cli-fi. Maybe I’ve had rubbish examples. Maybe there’s something good out there and I’m missing it. But if this and New York 2140 are anything to go by? It’s depressing, didactic, pseudo-cyberpunk boredom all the way through. I don’t want to be lectured about economics, or have to follow along with plucky but swear-filled kids living in the high-tech dystopian future, putting one over on the adults by just being that much better at tech. I don’t like plucky teenagers. This is why I read grown up books instead of YA crap. It’s not that I don’t care about climate change; I’m not an idiot. But both of these books have been thoroughly meh for me.

More than anything in this one, I don’t like or care about any of the viewpoint characters. The one I’m most interested in is secondary, and she doesn’t get a lot of actual development. She’s just an interesting concept, a nice bit of the setting, rather than a realised person. Our character roster is pain-addicted fighter, dull political aide, ennui-suffused posh boy and obnoxious teen. The political aide… at least I give a minor crap about her motives? But it’s only minor.

And without that buy-in, I can’t really say I invested much in the plot, because so much of it rests on wanting the characters to succeed – it’s very personal to them. And the antagonists again rely on your sympathy with the viewpoint roles, because that antagonism is so emotional and personal. So they don’t… really work either.

There’s also a major issue that I feel the plot resolution is handled way too quickly, and frankly haphazardly. Everything suddenly builds to a crescendo, and you get a blur of things happening without a huge amount of foundation being laid for why they’d happen just so. It’s not twists – it’s just pulling solutions out of the ether in the rush of the moment.

The setting is ok? But I’m not particularly into dystopia, and it’s very much on brand for that. It’s a libertarian nightmare future of unregulated landlords, green fires in the sky, and unbranded drugs galore on the streets. No one says the word “corporation” every other sentence (thank goodness) but there’s a lot of the feel of cyberpunk about it while being a slightly different flavour. It’s not that I just want happy, fluffy futures (or maybe I’d have got on with Becky Chambers more). But I don’t particularly see the glamour in the grim that a lot of these tend to be going for. And there are a fair number of slightly purple passages of characters waxing lyrical on their simultaneous love for the city and desire to burn down the entire broken edifice. They get… very into it in a way that feels somewhat alien to how a lot of people actually think, unless everyone’s doing it and not telling me about it? But it was bordering on the cringe several times, and it just happened way, way too often. It wasn’t quite your full superhero-brooding-on-a-high-building-monologue about “this city” and how they love it so they need to root out all its corruption, but that’ll give you an idea of what I’m talking about.

I’m starting to sound like I really hated it. I honestly didn’t. It was fairly easy reading, and as a setting goes, there were definitely some interesting threads that I could see cool stories being told about. They just weren’t the stories we got, and I was bored and dissatisfied by the ones that were actually told instead.

If you like cli-fi and cyberpunk? Maybe this is something for you. But it’s really, really not for me.

Current Nebula rankings thus run:

  1. Trail of Lightning – Rebecca Roanhorse
  2. Blackfish City – Sam J. Miller
  3. The Poppy War – R. F. Kuang
  4. Witchmark – C. L. Polk

I’m frankly starting to worry that the remaining ones will only slot into the 1 and 2 slots by default. It’s been a depressing year that way. The Calculating Stars is next up.

 

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About readerofelse

A student of a redundant, useless and thoroughly interesting subject and reader of many books, particularly fantasy, science fiction and plenty else besides.
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